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Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

Margaret Sanger was a nurse by training. She left the profession to lead the birth control movement in the United States in the early 20th century, and made a major contribution to the acceptance of family planning and improved women’s rights.

Sanger’s campaigning zeal came from personal experience. She was born into a large working-class family, and saw her mother’s health destroyed by 18 pregnancies and 11 births. Sanger’s work as a nurse in New York further illustrated the pain and poverty a constant cycle of births could cause. This was at a time when advice on birth control was suppressed and providing contraceptives could be a criminal offence.

Sanger wanted to change this situation radically. She published pamphlets and newspaper articles giving advice on contraception, works that got her arrested several times. Sanger took a greater risk by opening the country’s first family planning clinic in New York in 1916. Five years later she founded the American Birth Control League, and in the following decades continued campaigning in the United States and overseas. This culminated in her co-founding the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952.

However, these decades also saw her involved in eugenics. Sanger proposed eugenic measures in her Plan for Peace, published in 1932. These included ‘a stern and rigid policy of sterilisation and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted’. She and her British counterpart Marie Stopes remain controversial because of their promotion of eugenics.

 

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Bibliography

A Franks, Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility (North Carolina: McFarland & Co Inc, 2005)

P W Coates, Margaret Sanger and the Origin of the Birth Control Movement, 1910-1930: The Concept of Women's Sexual Autonomy (New York: Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008)

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